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Xander wandered the aisles of the Home Depot. He'd always liked hardware stores, found them soothing. Parts in bins helped him sort out his thoughts. He hadn't discovered the local mom and pop stores here yet, if there were any, but he'd come to embrace the big-boxiness of Home Depot, at least for now. The Home Depot in Cleveland looked just like the one in the next town over from Sunnydale, which was as close as he'd get to home. Ever.

He had a lot of adjustments to make. To a new part of the country. New weather -- any weather, pretty much, was new. Bigger city. Different vamp hangouts and habits. Unsettled living conditions (not that this was all that new). Strange radio stations. Baseball announcers pulling for the enemy. The whole eye thing -- loss, healing, prosthesis. The big hole in his life where Anya used to be.

Sometimes he was just tired of adjusting. Home Depot was good for that. He'd go inhale the smell of cut lumber, shake off the offers of assistance, forget how everything had changed.

Today he'd actually come for a purpose. As soon as the closings went through, he'd be starting renovations on the three adjacent brownstones Giles had found. It would feel good to swing a hammer again -- making (or remaking) something useful, not just pounding plywood over splintered windows.

He wanted more than this, though. The question was whether he wanted as much more as Giles had offered him. He sifted threepenny nails through his fingers, mulling it over.

It wasn't an elaborate attempt to keep Xander's mind off his losses. That was how he'd seen his excursions with Giles and the real estate types. Viewed himself as tagging along, and mostly made an effort to stay out from underfoot. He hadn't even realized until this morning that Giles saw him as a consultant. Maybe one who wasn't operating at full power, but one whose rare comments (mostly negative, offered out of earshot of the realtor) were valuable.

Now Giles was asking for full engagement. He'd dragged Xander out on one of his morning "constitutionals," a habit he'd established to get private time when they were all in the house on Revello. Nobody walked in Cleveland. It made Xander feel uncomfortably conspicuous, especially in their neighborhood. He got Giles to compromise, and they drove to the grounds of the art museum to stroll by the pond. It had become one of Xander's favorite places in the city.

Giles started out by picking his brain about the brownstones, what he thought it would take to get them in shape for living quarters and office space.

"You tell me," Xander said. "You're starting off with zero books and a handful of girls. What we don't know is how many of either we'll end up with. There's a chance we'll outgrow the space for one or the other, but it'll be a while before we know."

Giles nodded. "So whatever changes we make should be adaptable, then. Is that possible?"

"Pretty much anything is possible, if you have the money to do it. I'd have to do some research, put some thought into it, but I'd need to know what we have to work with."

"It appears we're not penniless. Angel's people are expediting the insurance payments and disaster funds. And he believes they can unearth whatever Council funds there are."

"His people." He looked out over the pond, the sun reflecting off the still water. "You're talking about Wolfram & Hart, right, not just the P.I. side of things?"

"Yes. Angel says they have extraordinary resources at their disposal."

"Yeah, the evil ones always do." A long black car glided by on his left, disappearing into his blind spot. "I'm willing to have them screwing around with the insurance company, but can you possibly believe it's a good idea getting them mixed up in Council business?"

Out comes the handkerchief, off come the glasses. "Angel believes they're trustworthy."

"Oh, that fills me with confidence. Am I the only one who thinks this is an idea that sucks worse than Battlefield Earth? Oh wait. There's Faith. Have you noticed whenever Wolfram & Hart comes up she gets this expression like she smells shit? That should give us pause, don't you think?"

A feminine laugh rang out behind him. Sounded so familiar. He turned, all the while knowing it was stupid. Knowing what he'd see. Yards and yards of white satin and lace. Still laughing. Glowy. Next to her in black and white, a guy who didn't run off.

The wedding photo op. It was the one thing he hated about coming here.

Giles took him by the arm. "Let's go into the museum, get out of this heat."

He turned away from the happy couple, let Giles lead him inside. They wandered through the galleries, and Giles picked up where he'd left off.

"What would you suggest? If we could tap into the Council's resources--"

"Willow and a computer, before you try anything crazy."

They strolled through rooms of paintings, Xander not taking much in, and then descended into a cool, dimly lit gallery with the Eastern art. It didn't take long for Xander to guess that this was Giles's equivalent of a hardware store. They were standing in front of a statue of that eight-armed snake-tongued death goddess, Kali, he thought it was, when Giles said, "I have something to ask of you. I don't want an immediate answer. I'd like you to think about it for awhile."

This sounded serious. "Okay."

"You know my next major task is finding whatever remnants may be left of the Watcher's Council and finding a way to rebuild. Or rather to recreate it -- I'd prefer to avoid some of the Council's most boneheaded mistakes."

"You've got a good blueprint for what not to do, anyway. And plenty of room to make new, exciting mistakes."

A wry smile. "Thank you for your vote of confidence."

He turned from the display case. "I have every confidence in you, Giles. You've got the intelligence, and you've got the compassion and humanity that the Council never had much time for." He hated to think of Giles without his books, though. He'd be -- well, half blind. But that, Xander knew, was something you could work around.

The glasses had gotten dirty again in the last ten minutes of browsing. Giles got right on it. Started ambling again, and Xander matched his stride.

"Xander, I'd like you to consider being part of the new council."

He was so taken by surprise that all he could say was, "You're fucking kidding."

"I believe I'm notorious for my lack of a sense of humor."

"Not at all. We all know you're a very funny guy. But to speak of it would ruin the dry."

A smile lifted about ten years off him, and Xander found himself wondering when Giles had started looking so much older. "Xander, if I ever have a son, I hope he's very much like you."

He stopped in his tracks, blinking. Wished he had some glasses to polish. "I -- thanks."

Giles clapped him on the shoulder. (These Brits have got the whole repressed emotions thing down.) Again with the strolling.

"Giles, you can't be serious. About this Watcher thing. Doesn't this send your irony meter into the red zone?"

"I do hope you're not about to make a joke about one-eyed watchers."

"Actually, I was about to make a joke about guys who fell asleep during every single research session as watchers. Except it was more of a valid point than a joke."

"Well, we haven't any books, so that's one drawback eliminated." Giles shoved his hands into his pockets. "This is what I touched on before. The old Council valued arcane books and lore over other kinds of knowledge, and it didn't always serve them well. Buffy said it over two years ago -- you have the field experience. You have wisdom."

"Wisdom." There was a new word in the Xander Harris lexicon.

"Look at the conversation we just had about Wolfram & Hart. Every point you made was a good one. Vividly expressed, I might add. You know what we're facing, and what's at stake. We'll need the kind of insight you have."

"So what is it you want? Do you assign me a teenage slayer and I Giles 'er into shape?"

The smile again. Amusement warmed with affection. "Not necessarily. I don't know."

The idea was pretty terrifying -- more responsibility than Xander had ever had. Or wanted. More potential for loss than he could handle just now.

"There's a lot to be done, Xander. Slayers to be recruited, and watchers. A library to be reassembled. Training. Building. I could use you here in Cleveland if you chose to stay, but if you wanted duties that would require travel, you could see much of the world. Take a few days to think about it. But I very much hope you'll say yes."

"All right. I'll consider it." He bent to look in a case, peering at a brass figurine. "Uma. She's not quite the goddess Uma Thurman is."

"It's very possible Uma Thurman was named after the goddess, you know," Giles said. "Her father is one of the foremost Buddhist scholars in the world."

"No shit?"

"No, er, shit."

Xander wondered if this was the sort of knowledge a watcher had to have, or if Giles had just happened to read it in a copy of People in some doctor's waiting room.

In the past hour at Home Depot, he'd manhandled various nuts and bolts and dowels, gazed at all the tools he wanted -- everything he'd owned, of course, needed to be replaced -- but accomplished little of his mission. He was too distracted by Giles's offer, and wondering about the future. Nothing could be settled until he knew the budget, anyway. Before he left, he'd check out the wrought iron window gates. He didn't care what they cost, he wasn't replacing another fucking broken window if he could help it.

Passing through bathroom fixtures, he glimpsed himself in a vanity mirror. He looked okay, even caught unawares. He'd put in a lot of mirror time, learning all the tricks, getting the eyes to track together. You really couldn't tell. Practiced the opposite too. You never knew when unsettling someone might be useful. Not to mention battling a vamp who couldn't quite tell where Xander was looking.

"New haircut?" The voice came from his blind side. He turned to find a pixyish brunette scoping out the PVC pipe.

Xander smiled. "Something like that."

"Don't worry. It's good."

Great. His turn to talk. That was the problem with the conversation thing. Eventually his turn to talk always came around, and even when he scraped up something to say, in just a few seconds he was on the hotseat again.

"Thanks," he said. Terrific. That bought him, what? Three seconds?

He ran her through the Anyameter -- not an entirely voluntary process. Every woman, he found, reminded him of her. He suspected it was a side effect of Anya's Haircolor of the Month Club membership -- she'd belonged to all the major haircolor groups at least once, so any woman but the gray or the bald tripped a few memories. Hell, maybe that wasn't a side effect but the whole purpose. It had just a whisper of vengeance-demon style to it; he wouldn't put it past her.

This girl's dark hair, though short, triggered the early-Anya recall. Brunette Anya who'd appeared in his basement room and had gone from zero to naked in 1.2 seconds. Okay, erase that, he told himself. "So. Plumbing project, huh?"

"Yeah. Old pipes. One leak, and suddenly the whole house needs redoing. Goodbye disposable income. Actually, goodbye low credit card balance."

"Same thing happened to a good friend of mine, back in California. I sort of helped her cope, so I feel your pain." Great. Way to make it sound like he had a girlfriend. Though really, why bother sounding available? Because, One, no way was he even remotely over Anya. And Two, everything else.

"You're from California?"

He nodded. "Just moved here at the beginning of summer."

"Wow, that's a big change, huh?" He wished he had a nickel for every time he'd heard that -- they wouldn't need to worry about the Council's money.

"Not so much as you'd think."

As he waited for her to lob the conversational ball back to him, he fast-forwarded to the likely end. So, listen, you wouldn't happen to be a demon, would you? Or, if it progressed farther than he dreamed possible: Yeah, I haven't exactly been on the market lately. My fiancee -- scratch that -- My ex- -- um, no -- I'm kind of recently widowed.... Oh, thanks. It's been hard.... Well, um, killed in a battle that sealed the entrance to hell. This was doomed.

"I'm sorry, what?"

She smiled uncertainly. "I asked what brought you to Cleveland."

"Kind of a natural disaster in my hometown. Well, that's actually more why I left California. I heard there might be work here." Doomed doomed doomed. Xander had sampled just about every flavor of doom in existence, and he knew it when he saw it on a little pink spoon.

"What do you do?"

I work for a non-existent organization fighting supernatural evil. Uh-huh.

"Construction. Foreman, at my last job." Had he mentioned doomed? Fuck it. He took a deep breath and did what he always did when staring down doom. Walked right up and shook its hand. "Listen, I haven't found a decent cup of coffee since I moved here. If you can show me the way to someplace that's got the goods, I'll buy."

She was smart enough for survival on the hellmouth, he was glad to see that. She didn't get in his car or let him in hers -- instead they drove separately to a nearby Starbucks.

He carried their drinks to a table and pulled a chair out for Mo, as she'd introduced herself. He liked girls called Mo, he decided. There was something inherently cheerful about the nickname -- even jaunty. Maybe it would rub off on him.

The conversation started off well enough. Slightly boring, actually, but safe. They chatted about her plumbing problems and the hair-raising cost of dealing with them.

"I hate to take business away from Home Depot," Xander said, "but if I were you I'd just bite the bullet and get a plumber. If you try it yourself and things go bad -- and nothing goes bad quite like amateur plumbing does -- it'll cost you twice what you're looking at now. And I'll shut up now before I start sounding like the sort of guy who hangs around the hardware store for fun. Forget the pipes. Tell me about yourself."

She was a grad student as CSU, working on her thesis, a blindingly esoteric examination of something he lost his grip on fairly early into her description. It had to do with English literature, that he was pretty sure of. During the season she sold ice cream bars in the stands at the Jake. She paid close attention to the team; he could do worse than listen to her if he decided to switch his allegiance to the Indians. As long as he wouldn't be required to wear Chief Wahoo on his person.

Finally she turned some questions back onto him. This was where things would get tricky.

"Well, like I said, I work construction." And why again would Esoteric Girl want to go out with Measure-Twice-Cut-Once Guy?

"Things must be pretty depressed where you used to live, if Cleveland sounded like a good place to find work right now."

He fingered the edge of his napkin, curling it into a tight roll. "That pretty much describes Sunnydale. One big depression."

A new song came on over the sound system, loping guitar and bass and Chrissie Hynde's bitter vocals. I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone...

Ah, Christ, just what he needed. He struggled to find the thread of what he'd been saying.

South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down...

A tightness gripped his chest. You haven't seen disappeared yet, Chrissie, but maybe the Sunnydale wrecking crew can oblige you.

"What kind of construction?" Mo prompted. "New houses? Stores and malls and that?"

"Public buildings, mostly. College library and a cultural center. A high school." All dust now. "I'm really sorry, that song's kind of distracting me."

"Oh, well you'll hear a lot of it around here. The Pretenders are a Cleveland band, you know."

Terrific. Something to look forward to. Well, I went back to Ohio, but my family was gone... Breathe. Suck it up. Talk about yourself. You can do that, right?

"What kind of music do you listen to?" she asked. "There's a pretty good scene around here, good places for live music."

"Indie rock, mostly. Though I've been on kind of a Clash kick lately. I was put onto them a few months back by a friend." Funny to hear himself say that, but he supposed Spike was a friend of sorts by the end. He screwed around with the napkin some more. "Listen, Mo, maybe I should tell you. I was with someone, back in California. We were on and off, but we were working our way back to on when she died. I'm still kind of spun by it. So I know I'm not exactly carrying my weight here, but that's what's going on."

She put a hand on his forearm. "I'm so sorry, that's terrible. What happened?"

"There was -- not exactly an earthquake, but something similar. My whole town was destroyed. Swallowed whole."

"I saw that on the news," Mo said. "Back, when, sometime in May? She died in that?"

Before he could respond, he heard a smoky voice from in front of the counter. "Give me whatever you've got that's closest to rocket fuel. Biggest size you have." Faith dropped her change in the tip jar and moved closer to the barista working on her order, catching sight of Xander. He saw her register his expression and take a step toward his table, about to speak. Then she noticed Mo and her hand on his arm, and when the barista called out her order she took it and left the cafe.

Mo didn't miss the eye action, though. "Who was that? An ex-girlfriend?"

A nervous laugh escaped him, horrible and fake. "No. No, she's someone I work with."

The hand left his arm. "I thought you were looking for work."

"I am. It's -- a temporary gig." Yeah, the look that passed between them had just screamed near-strangers, hadn't it? "I knew her before, but..."

"In California."

He wasn't sure he liked the way she said that. But why should she believe him? None of the details added up, and they never would add up, not to anyone who was outside his circle of demon-killers. He'd predicted it, so why be disappointed now? "Yeah, from there."

Ay, oh, way to go Ohio

Mo checked her watch. "Listen, I guess I've gotta call a bunch of plumbers before I have to head for the ballpark. It was nice meeting you," she lied.

"Same here." He didn't bother asking for a number, and she didn't offer. He watched her go, waiting until she was out of the lot before he left. No point making her worry he'd follow her.

When he got outside, Faith was sitting on the deck with her coffee and a cigarette.

"Those things'll kill you," he said.

"A girl can dream." She pushed out the other chair with her foot. "Park it."

He didn't really feel like being with anyone, but for some reason he dropped into the chair. "I'll never be able to have a conversation with a normal person again."

"Thanks a lot, Harris." There was amusement in her voice, though.

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do. Why do you think I used to throw 'em in the bed then throw 'em out the door?"

"Seems like a lonely way to live."

"It was. Trying to talk to them doesn't seem less lonely, though."

"There are so many holes. What little you can say just sounds like bullshit."

She tapped her cigarette over an ashtray. "We're different from everybody else. Actually, you could probably go native easier than any of the rest of us. Move off the goddamn hellmouth and make buildings and babies or whatever else you want to do."

"I don't know. I think it's too late. I couldn't say anything about the last seven years of my life. It's who I am, you know? Otherwise, it's 'oh, yeah, I work in construction.' Don't get me wrong, I can talk drywall until I drop you. That work's part of who I am too, and I actually enjoy it. But if that's all I have to share with someone, it's not enough. Might as well stay with the handful of people I can talk to." He smiled wryly. "See? Watch me go."

"When I walked in just now." Faith sucked in a big lungful of smoke. She made it look like the best-tasting stuff in the world. "You looked -- knocked for a loop. It wasn't just 'my god, this date blows.'"

"No." He wished he smoked. Or that he hadn't finished his coffee. It would be nice to have something to do with his hands just now. "It was more one of those 'grieving blows' moments. Damn song hit me upside the head with it. Not the greatest timing."

"Yeah, well, isn't that the thing about grief." She stubbed out the cigarette and looked directly at Xander. "I'm sorry about Anya. I don't think I've said that. Not that I knew her that well, but I liked her. She told it straight."

"Yeah, she did." He grinned. "You ever hear how we got together?"

Faith shook her head.

"She corralled me into going to the prom with her, then she split town when she found out about the Ascension. She'd actually seen one, a few centuries back. So months later she shows up at my parents' house and says she thinks we should, and I quote, have intercourse. So she can get over me."

Her dimples deepened. "Yeah? Well?"

"You think I'm stupid?" He was blushing, he could feel it. "Neither one of us, really, managed the getting over part. She was so new at it. Being human, I mean. It made her scary sometimes, but sweet. Everything was so awkward for her, in a way. But she soldiered on. How do I not miss that? How do I get over her?" He shook his head. "Sorry, Faith, I'm just rambling."

"Nothing to be sorry about. This is what that talking thing is about, right? With the not-normal people who get more than drywall Xander." She picked up her pack of cigarettes, looked inside, but put it back on the table. "I don't think you're supposed to stop missing her. You'll just miss her in a different, less intense way." She made a pffff! sound. "I'm talkin' out my ass here, what do I know?"

"No, you're not. And it helps. I keep feeling like there's a timetable, that maybe I'm doing this wrong. But I think maybe you're right."

They sat in silence for a moment, soaking up the last slanting rays of afternoon sun angling through the buildings across the street. Finally Faith looked at her watch. "Shit. We should get back to the hacienda. Can I catch a ride?"

"Sure." As they rose to go, he knew what his answer was. He'd wait a day or two so Giles would feel he'd given his decision the proper consideration, but he'd made up his mind.

He knew where he belonged.